The Pier

It doesn’t matter how long you traverse the outdoors, sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with unfortunate events. I’ve had more than my fair share of “uh ohs” and “did that really just happen” experiences. It just comes with the territory, especially if you are me. I’ve been on a camping trip where I almost chopped my index finger off with a machete. I’ve been on a deep sea fishing trip where we turned the boat into a submarine momentarily, effectively blowing the windshield out in my face resulting in 15 stitches (thanks, Chris). I’ve even sank a boat in the Okatoma River once that wasn’t even mine (apologies to Michael). Most of my friends that frequent the outdoors have very similar stories, if not worse. Unfortunately, that’s where this weeks blog takes us again.

My wife recently booked us a three day trip to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi for a family getaway. The house, owned by a friend of hers, is nestled along a canal just off of the Jourdan River. My initial thoughts are that this could be the best family vacation ever. To me, what could be better than a house along a river where you can catch redfish, speckled trout, crabs, and who knows what else. I was completely correct about one thing, the house is awesome. We arrived on Monday afternoon around 3:00 and just driving up to the house got my blood pumping. The house sits on stilts about 12 feet off of the ground, has a wrap around porch that is partially screened in, a nice outdoor cooking area, and down by the river……a pier. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this pier would tick me off more than once. We hadn’t been at the house more than 20 minutes, and while unloading the car I hear our middle daughter yelling. Our oldest daughter, Mackenzie, had slipped off of the pier and into the canal. She’s a very good swimmer for her age so she was able to tread water while holding onto the pier. I rush to the pier and pull her out. She’s a little scared and a little bruised up but seems to be fine. I scold her and Collins about the dangers of playing around the water without being careful and return to unloading the vehicles. This is pier episode number 1.

The next day we take the kids to the beach for a while before returning to the house for lunch. I planned to get bait and head out fishing, however, the weather had other plans. It began to rain pretty hard after lunch and did so for most of the rest of the day. Since it didn’t look like a fishing trip would happen that evening I decided to pick up a crab net and some bait. We tied the crab net to the pier with a chicken foot tied in the center in hopes of catching some delicious blue crab. Right before dark the rain stopped so I took the girls out for a night ride on the river. Tomorrow’s forecast looked much better so I would surely get some fishing done in the morning. I was wrong.

I tied the boat to the pier when we returned to the house around 9:30 pm. The tide was low so I made sure to give the boat some slack to rise with the incoming tide overnight. At 6:30 am I’m awakened by the sound of a horn from a boat outside. Who in the heck is honking a horn in a canal at 6:30 in the morning?!! Not five minutes later there is a knock at the door. I immediately know something is wrong. The neighbor across the canal from us, Robert, greeted me at the door. Robert is a commercial crab fisherman and was on his way to check traps. He was nice enough to wake me up to let me know that my boat was almost completely under water. I ran down the stairs and saw the disaster. I immediately flipped on the bilge pump and water began to drain from the boat. We used a small bucket to speed the process up and began bailing water out. At some point through the night the boat floated up with the tide and became lodged under a board protruding from the pier. The boat tipped to the right side as the tide rose allowing water to enter the vessel. After all of the water was pumped out of the boat I begin to assess the damage. The motor, which took on a little bit of water, will not crank. My ignition switch is likely fried as well as my interior light. This is pier episode number 2. With the boat being out of commission for the remainder of the trip, we result to catching crabs. The kids were able to snag 6 blue crabs so the trip doesn’t feel like a complete disaster, at least not to them! We returned home the following day, with my tail tucked between my legs dreading a trip to the mechanic. Maybe it’s a sign that I need to get off of the water for a while. At least for around 3 weeks (time period the boat will be in the shop). For the next few weeks I will have to get innovative to catch big fish. On the other hand, the Delta is calling my name.

Figuring it Out

I believe that no matter what we are doing that we should always be trying to improve ourselves. Isn’t it better to be more successful today than we were yesterday? The same goes for hunting and fishing. You try new things in search of the right recipe for success in the outdoors. I’ve recently taken two more trips along the Pearl River in Mississippi in search of that recipe for a cooler full of fresh fish. The first trip was not so plentiful in terms of flesh to return home with. The second was more fruitful in that regard. Part of that could be applying different tactics and part of it could be the river stages. I’ll just have to keep going to figure out the true reason for catching fish versus not catching fish.

My first trip of this post was taken with neighbor and friend, Dave Brooks. Dave is a Master Sergeant in the US Army and lives across the street from me. He’s the kind of guy you want close to you. I haven’t figured out much that Dave cannot do yet, aside from telling me that he refuses to stick his hand in a log to catch a fish. Give it time and I’ll have him talked into that too. Our trip began with a trip to a local bait shop in Columbia, MS called DJ’s Bait Shop. I’ve heard that goldfish make for good bait when running lines on the river and I’ve never used them so I wanted to give it a try. The owner of the shop is a rather colorful guy that we find out lives right across the river from the boat launch. The conversation turns to the recent flooding back in the early spring and he shows us pictures of his home, which took on plenty of water during the flood. It was hard to imagine the river getting that high up as his house sits high on the river bluff. It’s a reminder of how ever changing the river can be which provides me with hope that my luck from my previous trip will change as well. Dave and I get our camp site set up and get the poles in the water baited with goldfish. I feel almost overconfident in the positioning of the poles and of the bait we are using. We return to camp to cook dinner when I realize I didn’t bring anything to start a fire. Oops! I make the decision to head back up the river to run into town to get a lighter which turns out to be a good decision. A couple of other local fishermen were taking their boat out of the water and asked if we’d like to have some fish that they caught. Are you kidding? Of course I’ll be happy to take fresh fish off of your hands! It’s a good thing we did given that we didn’t catch but one fish on our poles that night. The bait seemed to work well since they were all missing every time we checked the poles. The problem was they must have been very easy to get off of the hook without the targeted species being hooked. The trip wasn’t a bust though, as I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dave. He’s been all over the world and has great stories to tell about his adventures. His kindness to others is unparalleled and his enthusiasm for spending time with friends is something I can learn from. He wasn’t nearly as bothered by the lack of fish as I was, which reminded me that trips like these are more about fellowship than they are fishing.

The second trip of this post is one that I have been putting off out of fear of the unknown. My daughters, Mackenzie (8) and Collins (5), have been asking to go on an overnight camping trip for a while now. While I am overwhelmed with joy when they want to go do something outdoors with Dad, I am also a little apprehensive in taking two kids under the age of 10 on the river with no help from their mother, or anyone else. I finally gave in and decided we’d go with thoughts of a disaster in my mind. I figured we’d get out on the river and when nightfall came they’d be begging me to go home. Fortunately, this didn’t happen. For this trip, I also decided to change my approach again when it comes to the bait we’d use. I went to a local pond owned by a friend and caught a few bream that afternoon to use for bait. We arrived at the river and only set out 4 poles. I figured 4 would be plenty to have to check at night with two kids in the boat which was a good call. The bream were also a good decision. The bait did its job and we caught four flathead catfish on the poles ranging in size from 5 pounds to 10 pounds. A very nice haul for so few poles being in the water, especially considering my lack of luck the last couple of trips. We also cut up one bream and did a little tightline fishing from the bank. This was the most exciting portion of the trip. We hooked up to a 16 pound blue cat which provided some much needed excitement right around bedtime when I figured the girls would be begging to go home. As I laid down to sleep, somewhat afraid our tent would spontaneously combust in the South Mississippi heat, I thought about how thankful I am to be able to do this. It took me back to trips when I was a kid with my father and my uncle. I have such fond memories of those trips and hope I can provide some memories for my kids that will last for years to come. I’m not sure when they will want to go back, but I won’t worry nearly as much as I did the first time. This time I’ll gladly be ready to load up the boat and head that way.

Pearl River Bank Poling

During the last weekend of May I was introduced to bank poles for the first time. My good friend, Ben Tharp and his father Terry, joined me for a weekend of fishing on the Big Black River just south of Vicksburg, MS. We put out around 25 poles along the banks of the river in hopes of catching some large flatheads. The results were not what we hoped for as we ended up fighting alligators for our bait and our catfish. In the end, we had 4 hooks straightened out, 3 lines cut, two poles that were nowhere to be found, and only caught 3 fish. We decided to pull all of the poles for the second night and gig frogs, which proved way more productive. Even with the disappointment, I was hooked on bank poles. I’ve put out limb lines for catfish before but would always run into great looking spots with no limb to hang a line. The bank poles fix that problem and allow you to drop a line anywhere you choose. I returned home after the trip and began researching how to make these poles. After buying my boat it was my next project. I made 10 poles out of pvc pipe. The only thing left to do was catch bait and head to the river.

I finally got an opportunity to get on the river and try out my new poles. On my maiden pole fishing trip I was accompanied by former William Carey assistant baseball coach, Reggie Richardson and his son, Cole. Reggie played at Carey in the late 90’s and came back to coach at his alma mater for 2016-2019 and I’m grateful that he did. We had some really great teams during his time with us and a lot of that had to do with him being there. Cole is entering the 9th grade at South Jones High School in Ellisville, MS. The reason I give that information is if you are a sports fan, particularly baseball, you’re going to want to keep an eye on this young man. He’s already at least 6’3″ at the young age of 14 and shows the promise of being a really good baseball player. On top of that he is the kind of person we all want our children to be. I selfishly hope he follows in the footsteps of his dad and becomes a Crusader one day!

We arrive at the Pearl River in Columbia, MS late after catching our bait in a local pond and waiting out a severe thunderstorm moving through the area. Being in a tent on a sandbar with lightning popping everywhere was not how I wanted the evening to begin so we grabbed dinner and waited. We quickly got the boat in the water and set out to find a suitable sandbar to camp on. It didn’t take long and we had our tents set up and we started putting poles out. Darkness was quickly approaching so we didn’t have much time to scope out the best spots to put our poles. We did the best we could given our lack of knowledge of the area and my inexperience with bank poling. With the poles set out and baited we returned to camp to eat a bite and wait. Cole built a nice fire that accompanied a cool breeze very well. It was the perfect night for camping. There were no mosquitoes buzzing around and the cool night air made for a very pleasant experience. Around midnight we checked our poles and landed our first flathead of the trip. It only weighed around 4 pounds, but the excitement of the first fish made the trip. We made sure our bait was alive and headed back to camp to sleep a few hours before checking them again at daylight. It is possibly the best sleep I’ve ever gotten when camping on the river. I’m not sure if I was just that tired or if the cool conditions made me sleep better, but it was fantastic. We awakened shortly after daylight and went to check our poles again. We only had one more fish, another small flathead, and only had one hook straightened out by what I believe to have been an alligator. After pulling in our poles it was time to head back home. I was somewhat disappointed to have not caught more fish than we did, but my intrigue in running bank poles didn’t decrease, it got deeper. I want to know more about the Pearl River. I want to know more about putting my poles in the right places. I want to know more about how to keep those dang alligators from messing with my poles! As we were driving home my mind drifted to how thankful and blessed I am to have good friends and to live in a country where we are free to pursue the outdoors. This is what keeps me coming back and I can’t wait until the next adventure!

Flathead Fourth

I’d venture to say that Independence Day is quite possibly the best opportunity for the American male to wow his friends and family with delicious food. That’s not to say that females do not cook on the 4th, you do! However, today is the day for the macho man to get out there and prove his manliness in the outdoor kitchen. Most will take to the grill for their 4th of July cuisine, but cranking up the fryer may be more your style. After posting about catching the large flathead catfish I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Are they good to eat when they get that big?” The short answer to that is, ABSOLUTELY! To me, the flathead catfish is the fillet mignon of the river. It’s not fishy tasting and you don’t have to worry about bones if you clean the fish properly. Here are some tips to cooking the best catfish you’ll ever eat (with apologies to Jerry’s Catfish in Florence, MS.)

Tip A) When preparing your meat, cut out all of the dark red flesh in the meat. This part of the fish, usually down the tail meat, is edible but not the desired meat you want. Also get rid of any silver looking tissue on the meat.

Tip B) Don’t overseason! It won’t take much seasoning to prepare this fish for the fryer. You want to taste the deliciousness of this fish without all of the additives. I use just a little bit of salt, pepper, and Tony Chachere seasoning sprinkled on the fish before rolling it in yellow corn meal. You can use a pre-mix seasoning if you prefer. Zatarain’s makes a pretty good one called “Crispy Southern”.

Tip C) Heat your grease to between 355-365 degrees. If you get it too hot, you’ll burn the fish. If you get it too low, you’ll end up with fish soaked with grease. Don’t overcook your fish. Once they begin to float and brown it’s time to pull them out. Set them on paper towels to dry and cool. Finally, dig in and enjoy the best fish the river has to offer!

Father’s Day Weekend

I’ve always thought that I should write about my outdoor experiences, but never followed through. My father has always urged me to do so, and like so many others, I agree then move on without taking his advice. It’s only fitting that my first blog be born out of a father’s day weekend adventure on the river with my dad. The trip wasn’t necessarily a well planned event, but more of a spur of the moment type thing. This is unusual for me as I am the planning type. Rarely do I ever do anything on a whim. That is a characteristic that I’ve acquired with increasing age. A few days earlier I purchased a used 16′ War Eagle aluminum boat with a 40hp motor (with my wife’s blessing) and had been eager to put her in the water. On Friday night I called my dad and asked if he could make the drive down the next morning to take the boat to a local river nearby to check a log for flathead catfish. In Mississippi we have a handgrabbing, or noodling, season that lasts until mid July. My dad said he would come down which blew my mind because he is not the spur of the moment type neither. Maybe it is an inherited trait rather than an age thing. The next day, around 1:30 or so, we headed for the Bouie River located just outside of Hattiesburg, MS. Two of my three daughters, Mackenzie (8) and Collins (5), decided to tag along with us for the trip. Neither of them have ever been on a handgrabbing trip before so I figured a quick trip to the Bouie would be the best way to break them in. The night before, they laid on the couch next to me watching videos on how the fishing technique was done. Seeing people pull large catfish from pits in the water drove their excitement and they were ready to go see it for themselves. We arrived at the river around 2:00 and slipped the boat in the water. The river level is pretty low as we haven’t had any rain in over a week or so. With the water level being down it makes for treacherous travel down the river. More than once I have to get out of the boat and pull it through the shallow water. The scenery surrounding us is nothing short of wonderful. Plenty of large trees and steep banks line the small river. The skies are blue with very few clouds as the sun beams down on us as we head to our spot. My mind grows with anticipation of what we will encounter when we arrive. I’m a handgrabbing novice so I repeatedly go through a checklist of what I’m supposed to do once I get to the sunken log. I see the bottom end of the log coming out of the river and I pull the boat onto a rock bank across the river from it. The river is only about 30-40 yards wide in this spot so it should be easy to get to from the opposite side. The water temperature is near perfect on this hot June day and I make my way across the river to the lower end of the log that is submerged just beneath the surface. I’ve been fishing this particular log with my uncle for more than 15 years and it almost always proves fruitful. However, this is one of the few times that I’ve come to this spot without him so my mind tells me that there probably won’t be a fish in it. Wrong! I wedged my body into the hole to keep any potential fish from escaping and ran my arm into the log. Almost immediately I am made very much aware that there is a fish in the log as it attacks my arm. After a couple of tries I’m able to grab the fish. My dad can’t believe it when I tell him I have ahold of a large catfish. He has since joined me in the water, mostly for moral support. The kids are standing on the rock bar waiting with anticipation of watching their dad catch a fish with his hands. I look across at them and ask them if they are ready to have their world rocked. Of course, they start to twitch with excitement and probably some doubt as well. I run my arm through the fish’s giant mouth and push my hand through its gills. Once I feel like I’ve got a firm handle on the fish I pull it out of the log. It’s much bigger than I thought it was and it explodes from the log like a torpedo knocking me backward. I’m able to gain my footing and display the fish that is larger than my five year old daughter. They can’t believe it, and neither can I. I make my way back across the river and we take enough pictures to fill up a photo album. It’s a proud moment for me as a father because I got to seemingly be a hero for the moment. It’s also a proud moment for my father who got to be there to watch his son do something he loves. We begin to make our way back up the river toward the boat launch. Looking at my watch I know that I am probably going to be in trouble when I get home. We were supposed to be back by 4:00 because my wife (Amy) and I are supposed to go out to eat to celebrate our 10th anniversary. After 10 years of marriage she undoubtedly understands by now that I am never going to be on time getting back from an outdoor adventure. Maybe bringing home a large fish will distract her from how late I actually am! Thankfully she never mentioned the fact that I was an hour and a half late. As we carefully make our way back up the river I cannot help but think about all of the times I have made trips like this when I was growing up. This is what makes getting out in nature worth it all. Catching fish or killing a deer, turkey, etc. is just bonus money. The real trophy is found in spending time in the woods or on the water and sharing that time with the people you love. I’m grateful for a father’s day experience with my dad and two of my three daughters. It is an experience that I will not forget anytime soon and I hope that they won’t forget it either.

My daughters, Collins and Mackenzie, pose with me and the 47 pound Mississippi flathead catfish